Those foreigners whose home it is
Canton Valais is Switzerland’s largest wine-producing region, called Wallis in German. The source of the name is widely but probably wrongly believed by anglophones to mean valley, as in the Rhone valley. The river’s source, the Rhone glacier, is high in the Valais Alps. As the river picks up speed and water from side valley streams and rivers, it cuts through the centre of this canton.
It’s a handy way to think of the place name, but this assumed etymology is most likely incorrect. There is strong evidence that Wallis, Valais, Vaud and – here’s a surprise – Welsh all stem from variations on words that meant “foreigner”, applied to Gauls by Teutons and to the Welsh by Anglo-Saxons. The words varied over the centuries and moved with shifting political boundaries inside what would become modern Switzerland.
The Swiss call it Valais – in English
Swiss cantons have official designations in German, French, Italian and English. Note that the English name is not “The Valais”, but Valais, with English usage clearly defined by the Swiss Confederation’s official style guide. You can check this and a myriad of other Swiss terms in English Style Guide, available by searching on the Federal Chancellery site.
Most style guides try to use the current politically accepted names for places, thus not The Lebanon, but simply Lebanon. Gambia, not The Gambia. Using “the” before a proper name smacks of colonialism and in particular British colonialism for many people, and can be offensive. Partly for that reason using “the Valais” can make you sound like an upper class snob, or old-fashioned, even archaic.
A basic principle for style guides is to use English names if they are very widely used; Lake Geneva is thus correct in English rather than Lac Léman, which is unfamiliar to most English speakers outside the lake region. For more on the joys of style guides, read The Economist on keeping its guide up to date.
In the case of the Swiss canton, Valais has always been simply Valais in The Times Atlas of the World, whose first edition appeared in 1895. It is widely considered by academia, media and governments as the closest thing we have to an official list of place names.
If you want another contemporary voice on this, besides mine as the author/editor of The Fine Line style guide, try Diccon Bewes. Here’s an excerpt from his popular book Slow Train to Switzerland – note that the inset quotation is from the mid-19th century.
In the end, it isn’t logic that dictates how we refer to a place; if you go down that path you’ll find yourself in a terrible tangle. Calling the canton that produces so many beautiful Swiss wines “Valais” has nothing to do with Brits or Americans or Canadians or Australians and their versions of English.
The Swiss call it this, in English, so just raise a glass to “Valais” and swallow the wine along with your pride if you’re still stuck on using “the”. You’ll soon feel better.
Photo: Valais wine producers Madeleine Mercier from Sierre, Sarah Besse from Martigny